The 180 Podcast: Todd Rose: How ‘Collective Illusions’ Hold Back Education — and How We Can Fix Them

Turnaround for Children
27 min readJun 1, 2022


Listen to the episode on Turnaround for Children’s website. Also available on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher and Podbean.

“The desire to fit in is one of the most powerful, least understood forces in a society.” That’s what Todd Rose writes in his new book, “Collective Illusions: Conformity, Complicity, and the Science of Why We Make Bad Decisions.”

Todd was our very first guest on this podcast. Three years ago, we talked with him about the idea that the U.S. education system was designed with an assumption that talent existed on a bell curve and that there was one standardized way to develop it. Talent, he argued, is not scarce. It is everywhere. And comparing individuals to averages is wholly misleading. So why does our education system largely continue on its existing path rather than finding new ways to harness each person’s unique talents by personalizing learning?

In today’s conversation, Todd develops this idea further through his exploration of the mismatch between what individuals want and their primal need to align themselves with what they think the groups they are part of desire.

More on Todd Rose: He is co-Founder and President of Populace, a think tank that blends thought leadership and original research with public engagement and grassroots advocacy. Previously, Rose was a professor at Harvard, where he founded the Laboratory for the Science of Individuality and served as the director of the Mind, Brain, and Education program. He is the author of two best-selling books, “Dark Horse” and “The End of Average”.

Complete Transcript

Chris Riback: Todd, thanks for joining me. It’s great to have you back on the podcast.

Todd Rose: Thanks for having me.

Chris Riback: What are collective illusions? Why do they persist across communities and decades? And why do they matter?

Todd Rose: Collective illusions are social lies. So basically they are situations where most people in a group end up going along with something that they don’t privately agree with, simply because they incorrectly think that most everybody else in the group agrees with it. As a result, entire groups can end up doing something that almost nobody really wanted. And what’s really crazy about this is that level of systematic misunderstanding, you might imagine would be rare. But in fact, collective illusions happen all the time in everyday situations. And as we’ll talk about, they are out of control in America today, spreading like wildfire.

And the last two things, why do they happen and why should we care, let’s go with why should we care? Collective illusions historically have been shown to damage individuals and society in a couple of really important ways. At the individual level, I end up making choices that are inconsistent with my own values and priorities because I believe it’s what the group expects of me. So look, conformity is not always great. But at least if you’re conforming to what the group truly wants, there’s a chance the group is actually right and you’re wrong, and it could be good. But now imagine that you’re giving up your authenticity. You’re going against who you believe you are because you think the group expects it, but it turns out the group didn’t expect it. The group was with you all along. So this is the problem. That’s compromising for you as an individual. But at the group level, you are now actually actively leading the group astray.

And what we know at the macro level for the collective is in the presence of collective illusions, societies, they tend to sow distrust, because if I think most people don’t agree with my values, I’m not going to trust them. They actually foment false division, which we’re seeing all over America today. And they make social progress next to impossible. That’s why it matters.

So why do they happen? Because you could imagine that kind of misunderstanding would require a bad actor or manipulation, but in reality, they happen because of the way our brains are wired. And you just need to know two things about your brain to know why we’re susceptible to them. The first is that as human beings, we have a conformity bias, which is not that surprising. All else equal, we prefer to be with our groups, not against our groups. That is not just a choice. That is baked into our biology.

But the second thing that’s really important is that for as much as conformity matters to us, we’re actually spectacularly bad at estimating group consensus because our brains take this really, really leaky shortcut, which is your brain assumes the loudest voices repeated the most are the majority. That shortcut you could see probably was never perfect. But in today’s world, especially with social media, it’s a disaster. On Twitter alone, 80% of all content is generated by 10% of the users. And it turns out from Pew Research, they’ve found that that 10% is not remotely representative of the rest of America. They tend to be extreme on almost every social issue.

Chris Riback: They’re the loudest.

Todd Rose: They are. And so the thing is, you could imagine what the problem is here. If only 10% of people hold an opinion, but you believe it’s 80%, then your brain’s going to assume that’s the majority opinion. And if you are not comfortable speaking up and going against your group, then you’ll opt to just say nothing if you can, just self-silence. But if enough people self-silence, then the only voices that anyone’s hearing are from the fringe, and the result is a collective illusion. And look, that’s happening in America today. We have research, and Cato also has the same research showing that two thirds of Americans across all demographics admit to self-silencing right now. So how does a democracy function when we’re not being honest about what we really think?

Chris Riback: Let’s get a little more tangible on collective illusions. And you can give us just a couple of the most stark examples perhaps that you’ve come across or that you identify. You conducted the study through Populace. I think it was 5,200 people, something like this that you researched on questions around collective illusions. What did you find?

Todd Rose: At Populace, we do what’s called private opinion research. We use methods that get around effects of social pressure and reveal people’s private views. We’ve done this, in that particular one that you were talking about, we studied people’s views of a successful life, using trade off priorities, which was really great. You can’t fake it. Across 76 different possibilities, everything from being a parent to being the richest person you know and everything in between, what could a good life consist of?

And again, these methods, we’re not just asking you, “Do you want to be rich?” We’re actually putting that into trade off scenarios with a bunch of other things. And it’s very hard to fake. And so here’s what’s crazy. We have people do these instruments, and we’ll reveal your private trade off priorities for a successful life. But every step of the way, we not only ask you what you think, we ask you what you think most people would say. And then we build a profile of what you think most people’s trade off priorities are. So with respect to success, it was crazy. The issue of fame — we think that other people in America would prioritize being famous as the number one thing in a successful life. And it’s not even close. We think people just are obsessed with being famous. In private, it is dead last, 76 out of 76 possible attributes. Illusions don’t get bigger than that.

Chris Riback: It couldn’t get more stark. We think it’s number one, and it’s actually dead last.

Todd Rose: This one’s a really important one because it tells us a lot about the consequences of collective illusion. If you are not careful, this generation’s illusions tend to become next generation’s private opinion because young people are not in on it. They don’t realize that we’re all lying about what we think. And so, think about this issue of fame. When we found this particular illusion, we went to our friends in advertising, in Hollywood and said, “Listen. Why do you keep selling us on this view of the thing that people don’t want?” And they said, “Well, of course they want it.” And then we realized, wait. The advertisers are under the same illusion. They don’t think they’re pushing something on us. They are just giving us what they think we want. And yet for me, I’m sitting here going, well, I don’t care about being famous. But obviously somebody does, or else why would Rolex be selling me on it? It reinforces the illusion.

So here’s the problem. My colleagues at UCLA have been studying the effects of media on middle school kids for years, every year, understanding what are they internalizing about themselves through media and culture. Up until a few years ago, the dominant theme every single year was character related, be a good person, be honest, be a good friend. A few years ago, it changed to “I want to be famous,” and it hasn’t changed back.

Chris Riback: Middle schoolers.

Todd Rose: Yes. And they don’t even know why. Interviewing kids as part of the qualitative part of the quantitative study, I remember one kid said, “I want to have a million followers.” And they were like, “At what? For what?” It doesn’t matter. He couldn’t tell you why. He just knew he wanted to have a million followers. And so that’s bad enough that this illusion of fame is literally corrupting our children’s views of the kind of life they’re going to live. And they’re going to find out the hard way that that is empty. Now, what happens when these illusions are something about the kind of country we want to live in? What do we want for the future of America? There are massive illusions there. What do we want out of our institutions, like education, the workplace, criminal justice? There are illusions at the heart of that too. Societies don’t function with these kind of illusions.

Chris Riback: How much are we at risk of today’s collective illusions becoming tomorrow’s accepted realities? How do we need to think about the next generation?

Todd Rose: First of all, it is a huge risk. I would say that all else equal, it’s a virtual guarantee that an illusion will become private opinion with enough time. The mechanism for that, which is young people, especially, they’re on social media a lot. They are increasingly not looking to their parents for values right now and other things. And they are super susceptible to the loudest voices. The dynamics of social media give that a boost in a way that just is unfortunate, but it’s hard to get around. So I might believe you all care about fame, but I know I don’t. I know I don’t. And so I’m trying to live my life in a more fulfilling way, and so I’m carving out whatever fulfilling path I can make. I might be susceptible to virtue signaling to you that I care about fame sometimes, but on the whole, I’m going to try to eke out my private life. Our youth, they don’t have that. They’re still forming their values. They’re still forming their views of what a good life is. And we are hyper social as a species, and so we are going to look to other people to tell us what it is that should matter.

There’s a whole line of work on memetic rivalry, on memetic desire about how we don’t just copy behaviors from people. We copy desire.

Chris Riback: Mmmm.

Todd Rose: It’s pretty important, and I wrote a little about it in the book. So I’m looking at being like, hey, listen. I want to be successful. Well, what does that mean? Well, what do you care about? And I’m like, oh wow. Everybody cares about being famous. There must be something there. Now, the thing is if I don’t already have a true north for myself about what it really means to live a good life, then I am going to adopt that. And it will be my view for a while. Now, I will say that probably how that’ll play out is you’ll have a generation who learns the hard way that it’s pretty empty. It could course correct over multiple generations. But that’s a pretty steep price for this generation’s youth to pay just because we are unwilling to tell the truth.

Chris Riback: So in terms of adolescents, how do we create the room for them to develop that authenticity?

Todd Rose: Look, adolescence is a place where your brain is particularly socially sensitive. It’s very, very hard. So there’s three things that I think you can do that are pretty important. The first is if you’ve just got one mean girls group, you’re in trouble. So having a range of friends is actually quite valuable if what you’re worried about is losing your authenticity. Again, that’s a little harder for them, but it’s still important. If you’ve just got a small group of friends, they have a lot of power over you.

The second thing is with respect to the norms that teachers create in their own classrooms. That’s very important. And right now, it does worry me that we’re getting down to, there is a right answer to everything, social or empirical, versus, we can create an environment where we want people to be able to debate. But there is a quicker step that parents can actually do right now. It goes under the radar, but it’s very, very powerful because what they see with their teenagers, and rightly so, is their teenage brain is far more oriented toward peers than it is to parents. And in fact, they’re actively pushing against parents. So often, that’s interpreted as we don’t really have a lot of influence on our kids at that point. And that’s true to some extent.

What you can do that is incredibly powerful for helping your child be able to maintain authenticity is actually continuing to cultivate their own sense of their own values and priorities. And there’s an easy way to do that. Helping them discover their own passions and what we called micro motives has shown to be able to be quite helpful in orienting kids to the things they care about. And it doesn’t mean they’re always going to resist peer pressure. That’s almost impossible at that age. But it will give them a north star that’s their own.

And the way that I would suggest doing it, which is small and easy to do, is we often ask … “How’s school,” that’s a dumb question. Don’t ask that question. That’s like, “How are you doing?” “Fine.” Fine is not fine. Don’t say fine, and don’t ask that question. What happened at school? What do you care about? What are you passionate about right now? What did you enjoy today? And then here’s the critical thing. Why? Getting youth to that one click down. Because let’s say I’m like, “You know what I really loved is I loved my literature class today.” Okay. What is it about that? Because a passion’s fine. If you understand the motives underneath it, now I know something about myself that is animating behavior.

So for me, for example, if you asked me and I said, “Oh, I really love football.” Why? Well, there’s a whole bunch of reasons someone could care about football. Is it that you like playing outdoors? Is it the competition? Is it the fact it’s a team sport? We could all arrive at caring about football for a variety of reasons. If I understand my own micro motives, I start to know the things that are true about me that motivate my behavior. And if you start asking that over enough different scenarios, I’ll start to discover the true motives that I have. Those things are incredibly powerful, and they help kids be able to maintain their own sense of authenticity and integrity, even in the face of social pressure.

Chris Riback: And God forbid, you might even actually be able to have a conversation with your adolescent.

Todd Rose: Right. Exactly. And by the way, model it for your kids. Don’t just tell them the things you’re working on and the things you’re passionate about. Explain why. This is a really, really straightforward thing to do that has big asymmetric payoff. And it’s good for protecting their authenticity, but it’s also helping them figure out who they are or what they care about, so that they can make better choices and lead a more fulfilling life.

Chris Riback: I want to get into the education portion and the way that collective illusions affect our education system in the US. Before we get there, give me just a little description, if you would please, around the brain itself, around why this is happening, around the biology. Why is it so hard for us to tell emperors, or more likely neighbors, that they have no clothes?

Todd Rose: From an evolutionary standpoint, we are a pack species. We are not lone wolves. And historically, actually being ostracized from the group meant death. You did not survive. And so our brains are wired to be very, very sensitive to deviating from the group. Let me give you a really concrete example my colleague from the Netherlands, did a sophisticated version of hot or not. He took people, put them in a scanner, and gave them pictures of people’s faces. And their job was to rate them on a scale of one to five on how attractive they thought they were.

Chris Riback: Highly personal question.

Todd Rose: The added trick to this study was that every time you push … So you’re showed a face and you say, “Well, that’s a two.” After that, a number would show up. It would show on that same scale, and you were told it represented the average response of all the people that had taken this task before.

Chris Riback: You could see how far you were off from other people’s opinions, supposedly.

Todd Rose: Yes. But it’s a group you don’t even care about. You don’t even know who they are. They’re not seeing you. And yet, even in that with a subjective task, with a group you don’t care about … It was actually manipulated. So the group scores were a lie. And they were meant for every single person for about half the time, their scores would agree with the group, and about half the time they would deviate from the group. When you’re told that your subjective response to who’s good looking is the same as the group, it triggered a dopamine reward response in the brain, the same parts of the brain that hard drugs activate. That is unbelievable. But then what happens when you’re told you’re against your group? It triggers what scientists call an error signal, which is processed by the same areas of the brain that process physical pain. And it is actually meant as a signal to say, something’s wrong. Stop what you’re doing and correct your behavior. And so that combination, you’re with your group, you get a reward, you’re against your group, you get an error signal, it’s a modern miracle that we ever go against our groups.

Chris Riback: How can we think independently of groups if groups are naturally designed to use the threat of ostracism to keep us in line?

Todd Rose: Great question. There are two things. At an individual level, there is this thing called identity complexity, which is something I think more people should know about. And I touched on it in the book. But basically it’s about pluralizing the groups that you belong to. So if you only have one group that matters to you, they have cult-like power over you. And it’ll take an incredible amount of willpower to go against what you think that group wants from you. If you diversify your groups and they are different topics with different people, it turns out that that diversity protects you from the sort of cult-like effects of any one group, because you can actually walk away. Now it’s not fun, and it’s not enjoyable, but you can.

Being a part of a church group or being a part of a sports team is sufficient, as long as the group is meaningful. And what’s sad right now in America is that we’ve actually decimated that sort of civic society level. We used to be a country of joiners. We were always involved in all kinds of groups. And we don’t have that anymore. And we’ve basically been left with our politics representing essentially a religion for us, and it’s pretty bad. So that’s something everybody can do right now.

The second thing, which takes a little more time but is completely within our power, is it is possible for group values to structure norms that actually incentivize being honest. Just like we have norms around, say tolerance, or other things in civil society, where I would prefer to tell you to shut up, but I know I’m not supposed to, or my group will get mad. So I’ll let you keep speaking. So you can build norms through our behavior that actually promote this kind of what I would call personal congruence. Especially now that you know how bad collective illusions are for the group, you really don’t want members of a group feeling like they have to self-silence. It’s bad for them and bad for you.

Chris Riback: Your wife belongs to a group of senior dog walkers. It doesn’t have to be massively political or important. It can be just go walk your dog with someone who’s in a different cohort.

Todd Rose: It’s funny because they really don’t have anything else in common, except for the fact that they all love their dogs. And they are a wonderful group of people. And we have come in contact with people that we would not have interacted with, and they have become so close. And what’s interesting about that is especially when your groups become, we call it orthogonal. So it’s not like I belong to my church, and then I’m in my church basketball league, and I’m in my church choir. That’s the same group. That you are now exposed to people who are different from one another.

And what’s interesting is it actually promotes tolerance as well as protects you against conformity because most intolerance comes when we tend to stereotype out group members. We tend to homogenize them and treat them as very one dimensional. But if you’re exposed to a range of people, you’re like, “Well, that’s not true. I know someone that you’re stereotyping, and it’s not them.” And so it has so much benefit.

Chris Riback: Todd, how do collective illusions explain the state of education today?

Todd Rose: So we’ve been collecting private opinion data, the same kind of trade off stuff about people’s priorities for education. What do they want? What does the public want? What do parents want? What do students want, across a whole bunch of different trade off priorities that education could be? And what we find, maybe not surprisingly, but it matters … We’ve studied this. We had data before the pandemic, two waves of data during the pandemic, and a new round of data now. So we have a really good sense for where the public is. If I could say one thing about the state of education with respect to the public, it’s this: People want different, not better.

It’s that they think the purpose is wrong, that they want it to do different things. They don’t want a better mouse trap. They’re not asking for better standardized test scores and college prep only. They really want, across all demographics, they want education to be about the development of every child’s potential, not the batch processing and ranking and sorting that we have. They want a far more developmentally focused system. They know that kids are distinct. They know that distinctiveness matters. And they want a broader range of outcomes that define success. They still care about being ready for college. That still matters. But that is situated with a broader range of priorities that are about being prepared for a meaningful life, being able to prepare for a meaningful career.

Character issues are really important to people, parents and the general public alike. We want decent citizens. We want good people. And yet, when you ask them, “What do you think most people want out of education,” you couldn’t paint a different picture if you tried. It’s basically what people think is that people are pretty happy with the status quo. And that’s not surprising. How many ways do parents have to signal what they want out of education? if you’re rich, you can just leave, if you can try to homeschool your kid or something. But most of the time, we don’t really have good feedback loops between parents and the system.

Chris Riback: So the collective illusion, I would think, would force me as a parent to say, “I don’t agree with how my school is teaching. I don’t agree with this process. But I’m going to self-censor because I don’t want to upset the apple cart, or maybe I’m wrong. Everyone else, this is the way they’ve done it in this town for 50 years. I must be wrong.”

Todd Rose: Yes. So what we’re looking at here is privately, across demographics, we are in agreement about the reality of individuality, about its value, about the need to cultivate it. Parents want that for their own children. The public recognizes the value for all children. So then the question is, well, wait a minute. If that’s where we’re at, why aren’t we doing something about it?

Chris Riback: Yes.

Todd Rose: The collective illusions, when it comes to institutions, they tend to be driven less by, I don’t want to be rude to someone. It’s that this is a collective decision. It’s not a personal choice. Unless I have the money, I can’t just choose a different school for my kid. So it’s something that we have to do together. So If I’m just sitting back and thinking, okay, I’ve got a job. I’ve got stuff I’ve got to do. If I don’t think everybody else is in agreement with me, what’s the point? What’s the point of agitating? It’s not going to change anything. Imagine just as a hypothetical, I live in Burlington, Massachusetts. Imagine I wanted all sports, all the time. Sports-based education. I’m quite certain that’s not where everybody is. So what are the odds that me as one individual can get that whole system to change, to focus only on sports? It’s not going to happen.

So a lot of people, when we do the focus groups and cognitive interviews about why it is they won’t speak up, it’s just like, “What’s the point?” They always say, “I know nobody else agrees with me. They are all pretty happy with this. So I’m going to go do my thing. If I can get my kid out of the system, I will. But it’s not going to change.” The amount of quiet desperation that we see is pretty staggering.

And that’s what worries me the most, which is I think we are literally fighting for the soul and future of public education. And it has been in the interest of a lot of incumbents, people in the system, to merge that with public schools as they’re structured. As if that’s the exact same thing.

And the reality is that what happens when people want different, not better? Well, the second they can get a private solution, they will. They will. And before, you only had to worry about folks who could afford to get the private schools or other things, but the pandemic has changed that calculus. Think about the number of people who still haven’t come back to the existing system. They got a little bit of a taste of something that was different.

And I think there’s some value there. I believe deeply in pluralism for public education. But what I’m looking at here is to say, if we’re worried about equity, then pay attention to what it is people really want, because if we don’t work to transform public education to align with the values and priorities of the public, then what you will have is a standardized system delivering on outcomes that most nobody really wants. But it will be left only for marginalized communities, people who cannot afford a private solution, and everybody else will go get something else. So for me, it matters a lot, someone who grew up poor. My family couldn’t have afforded a private solution. So we have to take this seriously. And I feel like a lot of the folks who are used to being in charge of systems and not really paying attention to the public are asleep at the wheel. And I think that there’s a real risk here for the future of education in America.

Chris Riback: What a haunting phrase “quiet desperation” is. That’s a wake up phrase. So how do we do it? How do you see our ability to use the principles you identify to offset the power of collective illusions and transform or revolutionize our learning settings and systems? “Different, not better,” to quote you. Most especially, if you could touch on, in measurement.

Todd Rose: So first of all, the good thing about collective illusions is they are powerful when they are enforced, but they’re actually fragile because they’re lies. And history has shown that if you can shatter them, you can unleash social change at a scale and speed that would be otherwise unimaginable.

And so that means there’s a couple of things that you have to do. The first is we have to create the conditions that allow people to reveal their shared values. Like right now, I’m desperate. I have no hope because I don’t think it can change because I don’t think people want what I want. That’s not true. So the nice thing is there’s some of that we can do through research. But really at the end of the day, it’s having leaders willing to say, “This is what I care about,” and everyday people just saying, “I’m going to be honest about what I’d really like for my child and what I think education should be about.” That’s doable. And what will happen is each person listening right now, to the extent that you share your real views about what education should be, just know that you are unlocking an exponential number of other people’s abilities to do the same thing. Your voice makes it safe for other people to speak up as well. That’s the first step. And that will create a hope out of despair, a hope that something could be better because we actually want it to be different.

That’s the first thing. But what you’ve got to do to drive the change is convert that hope into expectation. You think about a lot of times with social change, we tend to think that change is driven by desperation, that people in the worst situations agitate for change. But it’s actually not true throughout history. Actually, when you are desperate, when you don’t think it can be any better, why would you agitate for change? You look at the French Revolution, it was thought that the provinces that actually led that were the places that were the poorest. But it turned out that it was actually the provinces that life had gotten better under the king that actually led the revolution, because you got a taste of it. You realized it could be better, which made the status quo intolerable.

So what does that mean for education? Well, I can hope for something, but if I have never seen a single example, even a small one, of my values instantiated in a learning environment, then I do not have any expectation that it could actually be possible. So the more examples … And they don’t have to be entire districts, although those are a killer example. It can be small things. It can be out of system for now. It can be supplementary. But you’ve got to see these things happening to know that it is no longer tolerable to maintain the status quo.

Chris Riback: That is the call to arms, as I read it, of “Collective Illusions,” the positive deviance, which I think is what you’re talking about now.

Todd Rose: Yes.

Chris Riback: Todd, is there anything else that you want this audience of people who care about education to take away from collective illusions?

Todd Rose: Yes. Listen, I will tell you that there is a very, very, very high likelihood that the thing you’re thinking about and what you wish for the future of education is something that is widely shared. And the best news of all is that what we know about what the public wants, it is completely doable. So we are not talking about some, “We all want to go live on Mars.” Even innovation, like say electric cars, we still don’t have the battery technology to really, really scale that. So we’re crossing our fingers and hoping, and we’re assuming we’ll get there. Education doesn’t have that problem. It is not an innovation problem in the sense that there’s some qualitatively new thing we have to invent or else this whole thing can’t work. If you think about the ability to scale more individualized, more equitable environments with our technologies, with our teachers, that is doable. It really is. It’s just not doable with the assumptions of the incumbent system.

So I look at this and think, we actually have all the ingredients necessary to transform public education in a way that aligns it with the values and priorities of the public and allows education to continue to be the great equalizer, and even more so than it ever has been. Or we will continue to stay silent. We will allow the illusion to lead us to that place of quiet despair. And we will allow a system to no longer deliver on the promise and potential that it once had. And the cost is too great. The risk is too small to be saying nothing. So speak up, listen to each other, and realize that there are plenty of innovative people all over the country, working really hard to give us those examples that can convert hope into expectation.

And what we have to do, is we’ve got to get out of the stupid industrial mindset that the only thing that matters is the one scalable solution. I hate that. Right now, converting hope into expectation does not require the next great thing. All over the country, there are one-off, small efforts to show people their values instantiated in educational environments. That will do more to transform the system, even if none of those things ever scale. So we need to let those thousand flowers bloom, encourage them, and tell the stories and share those examples. And then we will take from that the best, and we will build up a better system. But if we keep defaulting back to… My favorite thing is, “Oh, we need more personalized earning. What’s the one right way to do that?” You’re like, come on, man. So it’s closer than you think, but we’ve got to speak up. We’ve got to hear from each other. We’ve got to recognize our shared values. And we have to encourage the social entrepreneurs who are helping to convert that hope into expectation.

So I would say that if you’re not comfortable speaking up, fair enough right now. And the book lays out a few things that you can do that allow you to not propagate illusions without putting yourself at risk of ostracization. So there are still other things you can do. But the willingness to defend and uphold the norms of free society is really critical. And once you realize what’s at stake right now is that as the norms erode things like tolerance, that these illusions will multiply. But if we double down on those norms, we will start to hear from more people. And again, right now, two thirds of Americans are not telling the truth about what they actually believe. A democracy cannot function when that many people are not being honest about what they really believe.

So to me, I look at this and think we can get group conformity to work in service of inclusion and plurality through norms, and it’s going to rely on those of us, who can, to be willing to be congruent and to speak up. And what’s so interesting is the people who have the biggest leverage, whose voices could actually have an asymmetric effect on everybody else, are under the same illusions. And they are actually silencing themselves. In our own data, we found that wealthy people and people of power privately see themselves as every bit as afraid of speaking up. But the rest of the public sees them as, well, if I was rich and famous, I would definitely say what I think. So those people self-silencing or falsifying their preferences is actually leading the group astray in a pretty profound way because again, the rest of us think, well, they must be telling the truth because why would they silence themselves?

Chris Riback: The point that you are making segues to, for me, one of, if not the most important, lines of your book, and it was on page 159. And you wrote, “My organization’s research has shown that the only way to really succeed in life is by being true to yourself.”

Todd Rose: This is really important. If you think about this idea of congruence… In the success index, we took an extra step, which I’m really glad we did. And it was my colleague who put it in there. I’m taking credit for it now. We didn’t just look at your trade off priorities. We also did two additional things. We asked on each one, “How are you doing on that right now? Are you succeeding on this thing?” And we asked about everything, so not even just things you cared about, things you didn’t care about. And then we actually asked a version of Gallup’s life satisfaction, which is just looking at your overall subjective sense of are you living a good life or not. And what we found was that to the extent that you were achieving on your private values and priorities, it actually led to much higher levels of life satisfaction. In fact, the sort of typical increase in achievement there, just achieving on your own values led to a higher life satisfaction, about the same rate as getting a 50% pay increase. It’s that big of an effect.

Here’s the other side of that though. No amount of achieving on what you think people think is success translates at all into higher life satisfaction. So at a personal level, your willingness to understand who you are and what you value and work hard to achieve on that, that is your only path to a life of meaning and purpose and fulfillment. And so every time you compromise and chase something because you think it’s what’s expected of you, you’ve just got to know that’s a dead end. So at the personal level, this commitment to congruence, even if you don’t care about the group, it’s still the most important thing you could do. What collective illusions adds to the mix is the act of congruence may actually be the single most important thing you could do for the group.

Chris Riback: Todd, thank you. Thank you for this really powerful and important book. It’s on some levels … And I don’t mean this tritely. It’s a self-help book in a lot of ways. It’s a self-help book for an individual, but also for our society. Thank you for having written it, and thank you for your time today.

Todd Rose: Thanks for having me.



Turnaround for Children

Turnaround connects the dots between science, adversity and school performance to catalyze student development and academic achievement.